Synopsis – Peppermint is a revenge story centering on a young mother who finds herself with nothing to lose, and is now going to take from her enemies the very life they stole from her.
My Take – As times are changing filmmakers are continuing to explore different genres all in order to capitalize on the audience’s thirst for good cinema. However, a certain section of filmmakers continue to believe that the best route for an action film to take is towards a vigilante film, which considering the turbulent atmosphere around the world, just seems debatable. The last time we saw this kind of a film was the Eli Roth directed 2018 remake of Death Wish starring Bruce Willis, and we all know how critics and audiences reacted to that one.
But somehow I get it, on paper, having director Pierre Morel, the guy who directed Taken, bring in an unlikely female action hero in the form of Jennifer Garner, who must hanker back to her Alias/Elektra roots, and have her wreck shop in a full-blown, guns blazing revenge thriller sounds like a good enough idea. Sadly, this one is quite a standard film, with a straightforward revenge plot involving a cartel, corrupt police, and judges. Despite a really solid and very compelling performance from Garner, this doesn’t really rise above the level of very average when it comes to such action flicks, a few very visually exciting sequences aside.
Working with a modest budget, it should have just aimed to be a satisfying vengeance film, but all of that is overshadowed by a thin story and even more thinly-veiled racism. However, the film may appeal to those who are just going in for the well-choreographed action sequences.
The story follows Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a smart and caring woman, who has a wonderful family in the form of her loving husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner) and an adorable 10-year-old daughter named Carly (Cailey Fleming). However her beautiful life tears apart, when three henchmen acting on the orders of the L.A. drug kingpin Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) guns down the entire family outside a Christmas carnival, with only Riley surviving the attack.
Despite a receiving a gunshot to her head, Riley agrees to testify against the killers, but the prosecutor is disinterested, the defense lawyer tries to pay Riley off and the judge doesn’t let her speak. Basically, every single man in Riley’s way tries to control her and tell her she’s wrong, so she flees dropping out of sight and disappearing off the grid for five years. However, when Los Angeles police detectives Beltran (John Ortiz) and Carmichael (John Gallagher, Jr.), who worked her case before, find the three men dead, they are summoned by FBI agent Inman (Annie Ilonzeh), seeking their help in capturing Riley, as she has robbed the bank she worked at, stolen military-grade weapons, and has taken justice in her own hands, by tracking down, and hunting every bad guy, corrupt police, and judges that are linked to Diego Garcia.
There is no doubt that director Pierre Morel knows how to stage the kind of cringe-inducing, pander-to-the-audience kill moments where a really, really bad guy meets a really, really excruciating death. Sure, the villains deserve it, and there’s a visceral death wish fulfillment in seeing this kind of street justice in the films. It’s an easy, cheap, well-worn formula. This formula in Taken worked, because there was time pressure on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) to find his kidnapped daughter within 48 hours. Here, there isn’t really a sense of urgency nor crisis for Riley North. While the film has a good enough set up and a director who clearly knows his way around an action film, the film mostly feels like a melodramatic, at times corny and tragically stereotypical exercise. It feels very much like a grab bag of things we’ve seen plenty of before, in better revenge type films like Man on Fire, The Punisher, and others.
Instead of working on the premise itself, it just sets up Riley going to one bad guy’s safe house to another. With a set piece of shoot outs and her escaping to another. It lacks the finesse set by the John Wick films and the grit of the underrated Marvel film, Punisher: Warzone, and it’s not as sly or as smart as director James Wan‘s Death Sentence. It’s never as bloody as it should be, the most amount of blood we see is right at the beginning when North is stitching up a knife wound in her leg. Here, it’s not even a case of this being a terrible film. It’s certainly not going to ascend high on anyone’s list of great action films or revenge flicks, but it’s not an unmitigated disaster or total schlock fest. It’s just disappointing.
This felt like something with potential that it never comes close to living up to. And with films like Mission: Impossible -Fallout or The Equalizer 2 still in theaters, it would be downright irresponsible of me to recommend one actually go spend their hard earned money to see STX‘s latest. The first act of the film is quite effective, as we how Riley and her family are established economically, particularly their money struggles. They’re looked down on by the well-to-do, taken advantage of at work, and have no friends they can count on to even show up for a birthday party.
Despite their hardships, the Norths don’t sink to the level of their tormentors; they resist the temptations of easy money or petty revenge, determined at least to be good people. But the biggest problem is that it feels like the first half of the second act is missing. The beginning of Riley’s rampage is only spoken of by a bunch of people in an office. When the drug gang begins to fear her, it doesn’t hold any weight because we haven’t seen Riley bring the fight to them. When Riley starts to become a folk hero among the homeless, it means nothing because we haven’t seen her help any of these people. The film is so desperate to move things along that it sacrifices crucial story beats and sucks the blood from its own narrative.
It also fails in every form of presentation, especially in the form of Diego Garcia, the head of a drug operation and supposedly one of the most dangerous men in Los Angeles. The film isn’t even self-aware enough to realize how racist it is. One of the primary examples is how Riley goes on a shooting rampage across the city, tracking down members of Diego’s gang, all of whom are Latino men. The shady DA, a white man, is killed off-screen and is only mentioned in passing. The only other white man killed onscreen is the judge who oversaw the trial. Everyone else she kills is Mexican and it’s incredibly hard to notice or not be uncomfortable with this portrayal. Even worse is that Riley’s husband, who arguably started the whole mess, is blameless and there’s no sense of emotion or tension with regards to how Riley feels about it.
Does she feel betrayed that her husband goes behind her back and does something so irresponsible? Is Riley mad at him for putting into motion the events which get him and their daughter killed? No, the film doesn’t go that far nor is it interested in placing blame on your average Joe white man who is just trying to do what’s best for his family. So let’s lay all the blame on the big, bad Mexicans instead! The funny thing here is that even in spite of its ridiculousness and clichés, the film does start to lull you into submission when the revenge stops really start picking up. And there are a few twists and turns (some eye-rolling, some not) as you wait for her inevitable showdown with Diego Garcia.
The action is pretty decent. It’s tailored to show off how lethal Riley has become as she brings pain and suffering through a variety of combat styles. Gun-play, close quarters combat, and a little strategic maneuvering will show the brawn and brains of the leading lady. It takes a little bit for the scenes to catch their stride, but once the adrenaline gets infused the combat ramps up and starts to approach the speed and intensity expected from such kind of a film. The part most people will enjoy, is some sweet, epic finishers that scream the justice you want for this woman, primarily in the satisfying camera work getting the full effect. Even better, they do a nice job of keeping things realistic and spreading it out through the film.
A lot of that has to do with Jennifer Garner, who is superb in the lead role. Garner has worked a lot over the years and is an actress who is in many ways underappreciated. Here, finally getting back to her edgier roots, her step back into the action genre works for someone with a grudge, a focus, and a sense of justice. Throw in some pretty nifty moves with the prop guns, and you’ve got a decent hunter of justice to get shine, as she leads the way for feminism idols. The rest of the cast is fine. Jeff Hephner and Cailey Fleming are sweet and genuine enough in their small parts. John Gallagher Jr., Annie Ilonzeh and John Ortiz are also good, while Juan Pablo Raba despite his poorly written character manages to sail by. On the whole, ‘Peppermint’ is an average vigilante action thriller, which despite some stylishly directed scenes, ends up unsatisfying due to its under-cooked, and cliché-riddled plot.
Directed – Pierre Morel
Rated – R
Run Time – 102 minutes